Robert Parker’s Legacy: The Influence of Criticism on Wine Styles

by Dwight Furrow

It is fashionable to say that great wine is made in the vineyard. There is a lot of truth to that slogan but in fact wine is made by a complex assemblage with various factors influencing the final product. Last month I argued that the wine quality revolution in the U.S. was a result of a fascination with the French image of wine, new technology, a focus on varietal expression, and the benefits of California sun that enabled grapes to ripen more consistently. However, an additional factor influencing wine quality is the feedback from wine critics who influence consumer tastes as well as production styles. How much do critics influence wine styles and how is that influence transmitted?

Any discussion of the influence of wine critics must start with the iconic Robert Parker who is widely credited with rousting wine production from its complacent slumber in the early 1980’s. Yet, he is also widely blamed, rightly or wrongly, for making wine more homogeneous and less interesting by (1) encouraging more alcoholic, riper wines that lacked nuance while (2) introducing a scoring system for wine judging that made wine more accessible to consumers by suppressing its complexity. Regardless of which side of this fence you’re on, Parker was no doubt extraordinarily influential, and it’s worth looking at the sources of that influence to better understand how wine styles change.

Parker’s main innovation was to change the authority structure of wine criticism. Prior to Parker’s emergence in 1978, most wine writing was performed by people who were in the wine trade and was disseminated through newspapers and magazines such as Gourmet, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker. Parker, a lawyer by training and a wine lover, accused wine writers of being in cahoots with producers leading to complacent winemaking with little input from consumers.

As he reports in an interview:

“When I started in 1978, there was little competition. The British dominated wine writing. But most of these writers were in the wine business. They were never truly objective. I was influenced by Ralph Nader and by attending law school during the Watergate era. I would be there for the consumer–against corruption or conflict of interest. It caught on with my generation–a consumer approach to wine, in contrast to the British approach.”

Truth be told, it was not only the British writers who had a financial interest in the wines they wrote about. Although there were exceptions such as the journalist Frank Prial at the NY Times, most of the other celebrated American wine writers—the Russian/ American Alexis Lichine, the legendary Frank Schoonmaker, the LA Times critic, Robert Lawrence Balzer, and Darrell Corti among many others—were wine merchants who also wrote about wine.

Of course, merchants are entitled to write the wines they sell but we can’t expect objectivity out of such an arrangement. Furthermore, especially in the relatively small wine world of the mid 20th century focused mainly on a few regions in France, merchants and producers depended on each other for their business success and maintained personal relationships built over many years. There was little incentive to bite the hand that feeds or for the merchant/critics to express strong disapproval with producers. After all, there were only so many places to sell wine and only a limited number of places from which merchants could get their supply. Thus, producers could effectively police tasting practices and slap down any attempt to taste outside the box. Authority rested with producers and their spokespersons and the legitimacy of that writing was based on personal relationships. The readers were informed by someone on the inside, in the know, and the reader’s trust was based on those connections which the writer fostered.

Robert Parker was not part of that cloister when he established his subscriber-based newsletter, The Wine Advocate, in 1978. He had no financial interest in the wines he wrote about and had fewer incentives to submit to policing by the producers. He disrupted that incestuous connection between producer and writer; it was his reputation for independence that was the key to his success. (Whether he maintained that independence throughout his career is a matter of some dispute.) As Parker’s subscriber base and his influence grew, the merchant-writer/producer assemblage loses authority to an outsider who, it should be emphasized, also possessed tasting skill, a prodigious memory for wine, and the charisma to effectively communicate his skill and authority.

The immediate result of this shift in authority was that new wines or wines that had been previously ignored were able to get publicity. Getting out from under the policing of the producers enabled Parker and the other critics who followed his model to more readily influence nascent trends. With this new publication model for wine reviews, he need only please his subscribers who were likely more adventurous than a general newspaper or magazine audience anyway. Thus, creative tasting—a mode of appreciation that is alive to new developments—becomes permissible and expected.

The second innovation introduced by Parker was his system of wine scoring. The Parker scoring system was a 100-point system modeled after the grading system found in U.S. schools. In reality it is a 50 point system. Wines start out with 50 points and he then adds points for merit—15 points for the intensity, complexity and cleanliness of aromas, 20 points for flavor which includes balance, depth and length, and 15 points for overall quality and potential for aging.

Although Parker’s is not the only system of wine scoring available, it is the one most widely adopted in the U.S. and its appeal is obvious. It was a handy reference for the burgeoning market of busy, middle class consumers that did not require they know anything about producers, regions, or varietals. Of equal importance, the score lends itself to nonverbal communication. When I bring a wine to a dinner party, I’m unlikely to bring tasting notes, and reporting them to the assembled (presumably non-geek) guests would, in any case, be tedious and invite ridicule. By contrast, reporting the score is instantly recognizable not as a descriptive statement but as a quality talisman that instantly confers importance on the wine. No doubt it misleadingly reduces the complexity of wine to a single dimension, but its utility as a communicative device has it firmly entrenched in wine culture as a marker of quality.

The significance of Parker’s disruptions is that, from this point on, all wines, to be looked upon favorably, must meet an independent standard that is no longer rooted in tradition. The origins of a wine no longer matter—it is the judgment of independent experts armed with independent criteria that determines quality.

The third line of influence was his alleged preference for ripeness and wines that were powerful and overtly hedonistic. There is no doubt that he advocated greater ripeness and enjoyed wines that were powerful and often flamboyant. However, I think his influence in this regard is often exaggerated since there are other factors that also played an important role in this change of style. The move to riper grapes and modern vineyard techniques was already in the works in France in the 1950’s via the influence of prodigious researcher Emile Peynaud, Professor of Oenology at the University of Bordeaux. Furthermore, alcohol levels didn’t substantially increase until several years after Parker becomes established, and the trend toward higher alcohol was initiated in new world wines, especially the U.S. and Australia, not in the French wines to which he devoted the most attention in his reviews. In fact, Parker continued to prefer the wines of Bordeaux, despite the fact that Bordeaux’s climate is not conducive to consistent ripening.  Sociology has long rejected the view that single, charismatic opinion leaders explain new trends which require visibility that extends well beyond the reach of one person and his team.

I suspect the impetus driving the new world style of riper, more hedonistic wines with higher alcohol was the result of the natural terroir of the sun-drenched, new world wine regions that winemakers increasingly chose to express. They did so because of increased demand for these wines by a public under the sway of wine’s romantic image. While Parker’s influence among connoisseurs was growing, much wine criticism was appearing in lifestyle magazines such as the Wine Spectator which began publishing in 1976 and the Wine Enthusiast, beginning in 1988, both of which appealed to a broader audience than the newsletters and put an emphasis on wine as a luxury product. When we imported the French image of wine, we imported the notion of wine as a symbol of luxury, heritage, romance, and the good life. The democratization of wine as a middle class symbol of aspiration was reinforced by a beverage that was lush, plump and sexy. It’s easier to sell wine as a symbol of luxury when it has the texture of velvet and tastes of chocolate and nectar-like fruit. The promotion of this style of wine required exposure that extended far beyond the serious connoisseurs and industry trade people who subscribed to Parker’s newsletter.

Thus, the importance of Parker’s influence was not that it led to a new style of wine—he was only one of many factors contributing to new world styles. Instead, his influence began the process of reorganizing the culture of wine. Prior to the emergence of the independent critic armed with numerical scores, wine was thoroughly a cultural product woven into the social, historical, and agricultural fabric of the region in which it was produced and consumed. The shift in authority ushered in by this new style of criticism begins a process of what some social theorists call “deterritorialization”. (The term originates in the collaboration of French thinkers Deleuze and Guattari) The term only tangentially refers to geography. It is a process of de-contextualization in which something becomes isolated from its milieu and, freed from its function there, becomes available to form new relations. In the process, it begins to shed its identity losing the meanings and attachments formed in its original context.

In other words, after the emergence of the independent critic who becomes the conscience of an international trading regime, the identity of a Barolo, for instance, is no longer defined by the common taste references of the people in the hilltop villages of Piemonte and their customers, and the standards for how it should be judged are no longer exclusively defined from within that relationship. A Barolo is now to be judged on a continuum that compares it with Napa Cabernet, right bank Bordeaux, and Shiraz from Australia. Its identity is stretched over multiple comparison classes and influenced by people who lack the historical and cultural resonances of its original context. Even in the short run before this shift in authority can influence winemaking, the meaning and significance of the flavors and textures are viewed from a new perspective contributing expressive code to the new relata and stealing code from them as well. The context of evaluation is no longer one’s tradition but other wines from far and beyond.

This disruption of local networks and local knowledge in the wine world had to happen. As global markets opened up and wine became more in demand as a beverage for the well-connected middle class, local networks and local knowledge were not up to the communicative task that was required to sell wine. If Parker had not existed we would have had to invent him.

But to what degree do these changes reduce variation and complexity and contribute to greater homogeneity? The story of deterritorialization mentioned above is only part of the story. Anything that begins to shed its identity and open itself up to new relations is in danger of being captured by those new influences, reterritorializing around a new set of relationships. The move to establish an independent tribunal for evaluating wines disrupts local traditions and provides impetus for change, but that impetus can be slowed if the parameters of the new set of relationships are too constrained and not allowed to proliferate. Parker had all the advantages of being the first to solidify disinterestedness as a condition of authority, and for a significant stretch of time he sucked up all the critical oxygen in the room. Regardless of how skilled or eclectic he was, he represented only one perspective and his outsized influence crowded out other voices, although eventually those new voices were heard.

In time, Parker’s considerable influence began to shape how wineries conceptualized their wines. Some winemakers likely began chasing higher scores by making the wines they thought Parker would like rather than the wines they wanted to make. Yet some of the tendency to make similar wines was part of a natural process. When something is put in a new comparison class it inevitably pulls in these other influences. That is the point of deterritorialization. But that flow of affectivity can just as easily overwhelm what was originally distinctive about the object—change effects both the distinctive and the hackneyed. If the new, independent standards and the sharing of techniques and methods across boundaries fail to acknowledge an organic development that preserves what is distinctive about a wine or wine region, homogeneity and mimicry can result from neglect rather than conscious intent. This is the source of the charge that so-called “Parkerization” led to an international style in which some wines seemed to taste the same regardless of where they came from. The problem is inherent in the development of independent standards which can shave off the rough edges of what is being evaluated in the interests of getting them to fit a mold.

The problem of homogeneity is surely exacerbated by the context in which wines are often evaluated—dozens of wines tasted over the course of a long tasting session with little time given to each wine. Intense, powerful wines are likely to show better in such tastings. Nevertheless, the use of quantitative measures in wine scoring is another source of worries about homogeneity. The suggestion is that the reduction of a wine’s complexity to a quantitative score inevitably misses the nuances that make a wine distinctive.

However, this is true only if the score is in part a cardinal rather than a purely ordinal ranking. Any scoring system will be an ordinal ranking. A 90 point wine is in some sense better than an 85 point wine. The crucial question is how “better” is cashed out. The beauty of an ordinal ranking system is that the numbers can mean almost anything you want them to mean. In other words, the symbol “90” means “of greater rank” than the symbol “85”. But what “90” or “85” refer to—greater with respect to what quantity—is up to the user. It is a very flexible system of ranking and highly deterritorializing because the identity of what is being ranked need not be specified.

However, the way wine scores are typically used is not a pure ordinal system. Cardinality is introduced because the meaning of the score is specified in terms of a variety of dimensions of a wine. As noted above, Parker was measuring factors such as complexity, intensity, length, ageing potential, etc.  The wine scoring system was an attempt to codify particular features of wine as markers of quality and thus begins to introduce a degree of standardization into the process of wine evaluation. Parker’s system was only weakly codified—he did not specify precisely the relative value of the factors he was measuring within the various categories he used to assign points. There was ample room for judgment to influence scores. Furthermore, different wine critics could use different criteria and weight them differently. There are no enforcement mechanisms to dictate evaluation practices among independent wine critics. However, there has been a strong tendency in the wine community to want standardized meanings across critical perspectives so they can be compared. The ideal is that wine scores should measure the intrinsic quality of a wine and competent critics should largely agree about its quality. Notoriously, critics disagree widely about particular wines; the ideal of universal agreement is about as achievable as global justice and Christmas ponies for everyone, but its value remains an underlying assumption of much criticism of wine scores. (The question of why we make this assumption is a topic for another day) But we should keep in mind that this attempt to rigidly codify wine quality is strongly reterritorializing as it cancels differences that don’t fit the mold—the upshot of a too rigidly codified account of wine quality would surely be greater homogeneity and fewer variations.

Thus, the influence of Robert Parker was a mixed bag. He introduced remarkable changes in the practice of wine criticism that improved wine quality and recognized variations that previously had gone unrecognized. But the values he fostered—independence and attempts to codify wine quality—introduced new limitations that future wine criticism must overcome.

For more on the philosophy of wine and food visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution